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The boys on the bus: hate with a smiling face 

Thanks to internet video, millions of people have been able to watch that bus full of gleeful white frat boys and their dates singing, "There'll never be a n--ger SAE."

It's just stomach-churning.

As serious as the words, though, is what the video says about the state of race relations in the United States - particularly between white, "upper-class" America and people of color. Protestations of some politicians and Supreme Court justices to the contrary, we haven't come all that far since the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The University of Oklahoma administration quickly banned the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter from the campus and expelled the two students who are most visible in the video.

But they weren't the only students on the bus. In the video, a lively chorus sings along, clapping, girls whooping it up and shouting. The tone is one of lusty, happy solidarity, "casually tossing around the vilest racial epithet," as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson put it, "as if they had been using it all their lives."

These are presumably well-educated young people. The two SAE members shown most visibly are "from two of the Dallas area's best high schools," according to the Dallas Morning News. And this is what they think of African Americans:

"You can hang him from a tree, but he'll never sign with me; no, there'll never be a n-- ger SAE."

One of the identifiable students and the family of the other have apologized profusely. But that doesn't lessen the seriousness of what the students did. Nor does the fact that the students were already inebriated as they headed to a country club for the party.

The students on the bus, young men and women alike, knew all the words to the song. Rather than being repulsed by its language, they embraced it.

In the seclusion of the fraternity house and on a bus en route to an off-campus party, blatant racism was acceptable behavior.

Perfectly acceptable.

Some racism, I guess, grows out of genuine fear of people who are different. But these young people weren't singing out of fear. They were singing from a sense of superiority and confident privilege.

Odds are, they have plenty to be confident about. They'll likely go on to successful careers, some of them, perhaps, as decision-makers in government, in law, in business, in real estate, in banking....

(In his own column about the SAE video, New York Times columnist Charles Blow included this quote from an Atlantic magazine article on US fraternities and their members: "Fraternity men make up 85 percent of US Supreme Court justices since 1910, 63 percent of all US presidential cabinet members since 1900, and, historically, 76 percent of US senators [and] 85 percent of Fortune 500 executives.")

It would be easy to dismiss the SAE bus incident as outrageous but limited: limited to this group of young people, on this campus, on this particular day. But the students had learned that song from other SAE's. And it's inconceivable that adults - the housemother, visiting alums, parents - hadn't heard anyone sing it on other occasions.

Nor is this fraternity at this university an aberration. Since news of the Oklahoma SAE chorus broke, the Times, the Washington Post, and other media have published reports of racist parties, racist membership rules, racist practices, in white fraternities and in white sororities.

To know how to hate, the Rogers and Hammerstein song says, "you've got to be carefully taught." And that teaching doesn't come solely from parents and from formal instruction in a classroom. It comes also from peers, from the media, from societal standards - from what is acceptable, in language and behavior.

SAE's frat house at Oklahoma is closed now. But the SAE song, with its hatred and ridicule, has been perfectly acceptable in a certain society for a long time. And racism lives on.

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